When David Bowie suddenly broke his decade-long musical silence – in 2013, with The Next Day – it was with an album that was very much ‘traditional’ Bowie. Sure, there was strange, otherworldly stuff in there, but it was all relatively straightforward: a kind of ‘Remember me? This is what I do’ comeback, fitting in neatly next to his best work, if inevitably lacking the sort of cultural clout that Bowie wielded back in his heyday. But if you were thinking that David Bowie was content to spend his dotage slowly winding down, think again.
Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, sees Bowie back to his experimental, deeply weird best. It’s apparently heavily influenced by Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly, but you’ll find no expletive-laden raps about police brutality. Instead, there are skittery, drum’n’bass-style percussion, hints of free jazz and saxophones. Lots and lots of saxophones. It’s not totally inaccessible – indeed, a couple of tracks boast some of the most gorgeous melodies that Bowie has composed – and certainly isn’t going to bring back any nightmarish memories of Scott Walker punching a slab of meat while recording The Drift. But it is that rare thing, an album that wears its restlessness on its sleeve, with songs that stagger from one idea to the other even as you’re listening to them- most of the time, you’re just wondering what on earth’s coming next.
The opening title track is a good example of this – clocking in at just under ten minutes, it’s a disorienting wander through three movements. A simple, low-key start has Bowie’s unmistakable croon over an eerie solo saxophone – there’s a weirdly doomy, portentous air to proceedings, of the sort that Bowie’s occasional collaborator David Lynch is so good at conjuring up – and then, suddenly, it effortlessly shifts gear, strings bursting into life, and lets the light in for a few minutes with what sounds like a totally different song. Then, it all collapses and the anxiety and menace are back. Ways of grabbing your attention don’t come better than this, setting the template well for what’s to come.
‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore is just an extraordinary slice of relentless noise, with Bowie making an early bid for best opening line of the year with “Man, she punched me like a dude, hold your mad hands I cried”. The song itself is a more exuberant romp than the title track, the pace almost frantic as Donny McCaslin‘s saxophone becomes more and more unhinged. Bowie’s vocals occasionally sound like he’s parodying himself, especially on the chorus, but that all adds to the charm.
Now and again, it all becomes a bit too unstructured and free-form. Sue (or In A Season Of Crime), originally released as part of the compilation album Nothing Has Changed, has been re-recorded with a woozy drum and bass beat here replacing the original’s big band sound. It’s almost too frenetic, too restless – especially as it follows the stunning Lazarus. This is Bowie’s spine-tingling, haunting theme to his new off-Broadway musical, and is comfortably one of the best moments on Blackstar: quiet and stately, with moments of crashing guitar and that omnipresent saxophone burbling under the surface. Lyrically, it’s like much of Blackstar: abstract and intriguing with some memorable imagery (“By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king, then I used up all my money, I was looking for your ass”).
That’s not to mention the downright startling Girl Loves Me, perhaps the closest thing to that much vaunted Kendrick influence. Its an A Clockwork Orange inspired, vaguely menacing mid-paced shuffle which sees Bowie singing partly in Polari – a slang language popularised by gay men in 1950s London – and wondering “Where the fuck did Monday go?”. This ushers in perhaps the most conventional section of Blackstar: the lush, saxophone-drenched Dollar Days, and the closing I Can’t Give Everything Away, perhaps the closest thing to a traditional ‘rock’ idea of Bowie.
It’s an album that sums up Bowie as an artist – restless, audacious, constantly looking forward to the next new idea. January may only be a week old, but that ‘Best Of 2016’ list already has a slot filled.